NBA: Pacers, Rockets have proven worthy of preseason hype

Bert A. Ramirez
The Houston Rockets and Indiana Pacers were on many people's lists of possible NBA championship contenders. As the All-Star break nears, both teams have lived up to their expectations.

LIVING UP TO THE HYPE. Houston Rockets center Dwight Howard (L) in action against Indiana Pacers center Roy Hibbert (R) during the NBA preseason game at Mall of Asia Arena in October. Photo by Francis R. Malasig/EPA

MANILA, Philippines – It seems like just a short time ago when the Houston Rockets and Indiana Pacers played a historic first-ever preseason game here in Manila last October 10.  Regardless of whether or not one got a kick out of that game, which was won by the Rockets, 116-96, in blowout fashion (this result incidentally was repeated in Taipei a few nights later, though in a more competitive setting), we did tab both the Rockets and Pacers as possible serious contenders for the NBA championship this year. 

And the evidence thus far has pointed to this possibility as real.

Consider: Through games of January 30, Indiana currently owns the second-best record in the entire NBA, having posted a 35-10 mark that would have been better had it not lost three of its last five games, including an upset at home by Phoenix on January 30.  Houston, meanwhile, has the seventh-best record at 31-17, which ranked fifth in the West behind only Oklahoma City (37-10), San Antonio (33-13), Portland (33-13) and the LA Clippers (33-16).

The Pacers have really turned heads with their terrific performance thus far.  Led by All-Star Game starter Paul George, the Pacers still have the best home record, having lost just two of 23 games at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, and are one of only 11 clubs to have a winning mark on the road at 14-8.  In addition, the Pacers also own the best point differential of all NBA teams with an average winning margin of plus 8.2 points, limiting opponents to a league-low 90.5 points while scoring at a 98.6-point clip.

The Rockets, on the other hand, may not be as impressive as their Eastern counterparts but are very much in the mix nevertheless, having posted winning records both at home (19-7) and on the road (12-10). Coach Kevin McHale’s charges, who boast of All-Stars James Harden and Dwight Howard, have defied injuries to Harden himself (bruised thumb), Jeremy Lin (right knee sprain and sore back), Chandler Parsons (back spasms and sore knee), Patrick Beverly (broken hand), Terrence Jones (left thigh) and Omer Asik (right thigh contusion and knee) to remain in the hunt for a playoff berth and home court advantage in the first round of the playoffs.

The Rockets, not content with last year’s 45-37 record and a 4-2 first-round exit against Oklahoma City in the playoffs, pried away Howard, who is generally regarded as the best big man in the game, from the LA Lakers last July after the free agent’s disastrous one-year stint with the Hollywood City squad.

The 6-foot-11 Howard has gradually regained his defensive moxie as he has recovered from an old back injury, providing an even bigger upgrade for the Rockets after replacing erstwhile starter Omer Asik at center as he ranked in the top 10 in both rebounds and blocked shots with 12.5 and 1.73, respectively, while averaging 18.1 points per game on a .571 floor shooting clip, fifth-best in the league.

Of course, five holdovers from last year’s No. 8 seed – Harden, Parsons, Lin, Jones and Beverly – have continued to provide steady play for the Rockets.

The 6-foot-5 Harden, who became last year’s franchise star for Houston when he made his first All-Star Game after coming in a trade from Oklahoma City, continues to be the Rockets’ go-to guy, averaging 23.7 points, seventh in the league, a team-leading 5.5 assists, 4.9 rebounds and 1.33 steals, roughly almost the same numbers as he produced in his first season with the club, during which he fulfilled a blueprint by Houston GM Daryl Morey to make him the Rockets’ centerpiece player.  

BEARD POWER. Rockets guard James Harden goes up for a dunk during a game against the Knicks in November. Photo by Jason Szenes/EPA

Parsons, a largely unheralded 6-9 forward from Florida who was drafted as a second-rounder (the 38th overall pick) in 2011, is putting up career numbers, norming 17.3 points, 5.7 rebounds and 3.6 assists. In an 88-87 home loss to Memphis, Parsons set a new club record with 10 three-pointers, breaking Robert Horry’s old mark of nine, en route to a career-high 34 points.

Lin, two years removed from Linsanity, provides instant offense from the bench, averaging 13.4 scores while also putting in norms of 4.4 dishoffs and 1.00 steal.  His replacement at the starting point-guard spot, Beverly, provides heftier defense while chipping in 9.6 points, 2.5 assists, 3.9 boards and 1.23 steals. 

The 6-foot-9 Jones, a sophomore out of Kentucky, has made the most of it since being inserted at the starting power-forward spot nine games into the season, averaging 11.8 points, 7.5 boards and 1.42 blocks (15th in the league) as he provides the Rockets a good stretch forward to partner with Howard.  Jones, who has just been named to the Rising Stars Challenge, the Rookie-Sophomore game on All-Star Weekend this coming February 14, scored a career-high 36 points in a 114-104 victory over Milwaukee last January 18.

Besides Howard and the five carryovers, two other players have contributed to making the Rockets one of the league’s top teams, offseason acquisition Omri Casspi and seven-year veteran Aaron Brooks.

Casspi has bounced back from pedestrian play the last three seasons to be a vital rotation player for the Rockets, norming 8.0 points and 3.9 rebounds in just 19.8 minutes per contest. The 6-foot-9 forward, the first Israeli to play in the NBA, has provided another stretch forward in McHale’s run-and-gun system that has made Houston one of the top offensive teams in the league. 

Brooks, meanwhile, may have seen his best days (he played on those Yao Ming-led teams and normed a career-best 19.6 points in 2010) but he has been a spark off the bench particularly during the injury-induced absence of Beverly, Harden and Lin with norms of 7.3 scores and 2.0 handoffs.

But one issue that the Rockets have to confront as the trade deadline on February 20 approaches is the question of what to do with last year’s starting center, Asik, who has obviously been unhappy with Howard having taken over his role and has reportedly asked for a trade. The seven-foot Turk, who normed a league-third-best 11.7 rebounds and 10.1 points on just 7.5 shot attempts last season, was on the verge of being traded to Boston last December but Morey balked at the last minute. 

The Rockets have to finally decide on what to do with Asik (pronounced a-SHIK) if only to further bolster other positions, particularly at big guard where there’s a need for one who can shoot the three more consistently and at power forward where better spacing can be provided on the floor by a reliable shooter.  

The Pacers have no such issue to deal with, Larry Bird’s club having been the most consistent team in the league since opening up the season with nine straight victories.  The Pacers have lost two straight games just once in two close contests against Detroit and Miami back in December, and they have reeled streaks of seven straight wins and five consecutive triumphs (twice).

 OH GEORGE. Pacers small forward Paul George has averaged 23 points and 6 rebounds a game, earning an All-Star selection in the process. Photo by Steven C. Mitchell/EPA

A major reason for this is the emergence of George as perhaps one of the five best players in the league today.  George, a 6-foot-9, 221-pound forward, has become the undisputed leader of this Indiana ballclub after having been drafted by Bird 10th overall in 2010 as a relative unknown out of Fresno State.  Not yet 24, George won last year’s Most Improved Player honors, an All-NBA Third Team berth as well as an All-Defensive Second Team slot, and is currently averaging a career-best 23.0 points (eighth in the league), 6.4 rebounds, 3.5 assists and 1.82 steals (also ranked eighth).

George’s arrival as a legitimate superstar has been validated when fans voted him as a starter in this year’s All-Star Game in New Orleans on February 16, becoming, along with center Roy Hibbert, the first pair of Pacers to earn All-Star honors since Jermaine O’Neal and Ron Artest in 2004. 

That was the year the infamous Brawl at The Palace took place, and set the Pacers back by about a decade in terms of contending for a championship as the brawl eventually led to the breakup of their core that then included such players as Hall of Famer Reggie Miller, who retired after that season, O’Neal, Artest and Stephen Jackson.

The Pacers, who pushed eventual champion Miami to seven games in last season’s Eastern Conference finals before eventually succumbing to LeBron James and company, are even stronger this time not only because of the experience they gained in that mano-a-mano with the Heat but also because they added depth to their bench with the offseason acquisition of former Phoenix forward Luis Scola, erstwhile Brooklyn guard C.J. Watson and ex-New York forward Chris Copeland. 

In fact, many pundits think the Pacers could have eliminated the Heat outright had they not thrown away Game 1, where they led by one before pulling out their big man, Hibbert, and allowed James to beat them with a layup at the buzzer.  Hibbert had previously limited the Heat’s forays to the basket with his intimidating presence, but coach Frank Vogel inexplicably replaced the one-time All-Star with Ian Mahinmi on that last play purportedly to guard a more mobile Chris Bosh.  Indiana paid the price with that move. 

Still, the Pacers are looking for payback with George, Hibbert, two-time All-Star David West, Lance Stephenson, George Hill, a comebacking Danny Granger and those offseason acquisitions playing so well together and muzzling opponents with that stingy defense.  The plan has worked to near perfection thus far with Bird – who has come back as Pacers president after a year off to mend back and shoulder problems and is credited with putting together this bunch brick by brick – overseeing the operations.

Hibbert is norming 12.2 scores, 7.8 caroms and 2.53 shot blocks (second in the league), but his real value is in his intimidating presence on defense, where his imposing size (7-2, 290 pounds) has made him one of the top, if not the top, rim protector in the league.

West, an All-Star in 2008 and 2009 as a member of the then-New Orleans Hornets (now Pelicans), is averaging 13.0 points, more than four off last season’s clip, as well as 6.5 boards and 2.9 assists, but the dip in scoring could be attributed to a more balanced attack and the improvement of Stephenson, the 6-5 starting big guard who has made Bird proud for taking him in the second round with the 40th pick in the 2010 draft, the same draft where he took George.

NBA teams shied away from Stephenson, the all-time leading scorer in New York high school basketball, for his unsavory reputation that included maturity issues and a sexual assault case, but Bird stayed with him and the faith has paid off. He’s now next only to George on the team in scoring, norming a career-high 14.2 points, and is also putting in a team-best 5.4 assists and 7.2 boards (second on the Pacers) while having posted a league-best four triple doubles.

Hill, the starting point guard whom the Pacers acquired from San Antonio for Kawhi Leonard in 2011, has also continued with his solid play with averages of 10.8 points, 3.3 assists, 3.7 rebounds and 1.00 steal while Granger, an All-Star in 2009 when he normed a career-high 25.8 scores but played all of just five games last season because of a knee injury, is scoring at an 8.3-point clip while averaging 3.6 boards and 1.2 feeds in 22.2 minutes of reserve duty.

Scola (8.0 ppg, 5.3 rpg), Watson (6.3 ppg, 1.8 apg), Mahinmi (3.0 ppg, 3.1 rpg) and Copeland (3.0 ppg) have all contributed off the bench to make the Pacers possibly the best team in the NBA this year.

While the current campaign has just passed the halfway mark and has obviously a long way to go, one can be sure that the Pacers and the Rockets will be in the thick of things once the real season, the playoffs, begins, that is, if the way things have gone are any indication at all.  And if that comes to pass, Filipino fans can take pride in the fact that they, not anybody else, had the first closeup look at what could just come out as the next NBA kingpins.

Wanna bet on the Pacers?  Or the Rockets? –

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